In Our View: Drawing the Lines

State’s redistricting process brings transparency to once-clandestine endeavor

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It was hardly the stuff of lore, of the legendary smoke-filled backrooms with which political king-making often is associated.

Washington’s Redistricting Commission met Tuesday in a public forum, with the bipartisan body of four representatives presenting proposals for redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative districts.

At stake is the makeup of a new congressional district, with Washington adding a 10th member to the House of Representatives as dictated by the latest census numbers. Also at stake is the manner in which that new district will alter the boundaries served by current congressional representatives, all while maintaining relatively equal population between the districts.

The final product could have an extensive impact on Washington politics of the future. But for now, the focus — and the plaudits — should be on the system involved in updating the districts.

To its credit, Washington’s process for redrawing districts brings a once-clandestine endeavor into the light of day. One member of the commission was selected by Senate Republicans, and one by Senate Democrats. One was appointed by the House speaker, a Democrat, and one by Republican members of the House. The members then held meetings all over the state, gathering input from citizens.

On Tuesday, those commissioners each presented maps of their proposed districts, with the group planning to settle upon one idea by a self-imposed deadline of Nov. 1. If the commission fails to send a proposal to the Legislature by the end of the year, the state Supreme Court would draw the new maps.

For generations, the redrawing of Congressional and Legislative districts has been one of the dirty little secrets of American politics, filled with backroom deals and partisan wrangling. Many states still have their Legislature draw up the plans, giving unfettered power to the party that happens to be in charge at the time. The gerrymandering of districts that might or might not be politically or geographically homogeneous often is the result of a political power play.

Washington’s method is superior, although it is not devoid of partisan gamesmanship. For example, the proposal from Democrat Tim Ceis displaces 17 legislators from the districts they represent — 15 of them Republicans. For another example, the proposal from Republican Slade Gorton would weaken the last Democratic district left in Eastern Washington.

But there were highlights, as well. Among them is the likely creation of a majority-minority district, an area in which members of racial or ethnic minorities comprise a majority of the population. Three of the four plans include a majority-minority Congressional district in the south King County area, something that many speakers at the public forums had advocated.

In addition, the Legislative proposal from Gorton, a former U.S. senator, would create for the first time a Hispanic-majority area in the 15th District, which currently covers Yakima, Klickitat and Skamania counties plus a small portion of east Clark County.

As far as Southwest Washington goes, the final plan likely will be good news for Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, a first-term Republican representative from the 3rd District. Herrera Beutler’s district could lose Thurston County but gain the more-conservative Klickitat County.

On the flip side, all four proposals for the redrawing of Legislative districts would place state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, outside the 18th District that he currently represents.

Much work remains to be done as Washington carves out its new Congressional and Legislative districts. But at least the work will be done with a transparency that could serve as a lesson for other governmental entities.